Vol. 16, No. 2 • May 2012

CFTs through the Eyes of a Facilitator

by Linda Waters

I’m a wife and mother of two children. I have worked in Child Protective Services for eight years and was even in foster care as a child. I’m also a child and family team meeting (CFT) facilitator at McDowell County DSS.

Given my role, you won’t be surprised to hear that I really believe in the power of CFTs to make a positive difference in the lives of children and their families. To explain why I feel this way, I’d like to tell you about how I see my role and the impact it can have.

When trying to describe my role as a facilitator in CFTs, several words come to mind: organizer, guide, people watcher, mediator, builder, and safety net. As a facilitator, I take on many roles to meet the needs of the family. These roles empower families and help them make the best possible decisions.

As an organizer, a CFT facilitator meets with the social worker and gathers information about the purpose of the meeting and any safety concerns as well as supports needed in the meeting. A facilitator also ensures the worker prepares everyone coming to the meeting so they know what’s expected and there are no surprises for the family.

Getting individual family members to participate during the meeting can often be difficult. Coming into a meeting with child protective service workers and other professionals can be intimidating to families. The facilitator tries to encourage families to participate so their voice can be heard.

To begin the meeting the facilitator acts as a guide for families by showing them the process of what to expect during the meeting. To set a positive tone, the facilitator begins focusing on the strengths of the family. This allows the families to see the positive attributes in their lives. Family members often become more relaxed and interested at this point.

People Watcher
Facilitators must be people watchers, paying close attention to body language, tone of voice, and underlying meanings to what is being said. For example, if an individual is rolling their eyes, clenching a fist, or their face is turning red during the meeting, this can signal frustration or distress. Noticing this, the facilitator can either ask that family member to express their opinion or ask the team to take a short break.

Once individuals begin freely talking and voicing their opinions, conflict will often arise. As the neutral person in the room I can mediate conflicts between families and agencies. I help people see that compromise can be beneficial. At this point in the meeting family members are hopefully engaged in recommendations being made and willing to think about which services would best suit their needs.

Choosing services or activities that best fit individual family members can be complicated. For example, several times I have been part of meetings where substance abuse was an issue. On the surface it can look like a person simply has “a drug problem.” After discussions about reasons for and history of substance use it is occasionally discovered that an individual is using substances because they have untreated mental health diagnoses or they have a trauma history of their own. Having an individual come forward freely with this information can have a profound effect on how they see their situation. When this happens, professionals and family members come together and I help them build a plan that all parties feel will work for the family.

Safety Net
Facilitators are also a safety net. Being in out-of-home placement or worrying that children will be removed from their homes can be overwhelming. Because these meetings can be intimidating, every effort must be made to make individuals feel safe, both physically and emotionally.

CFTs: Child Involvement Can Make All the Difference

The best meetings I’ve had involved young children feeling safe enough to express their wishes and needs. For example, I facilitated a number of meetings for a family where their children were in DSS custody (foster care) and placed with relatives. The oldest child was ten years old and had been out of his home for less than a year. This child had been involved in every CFT, but did not like to talk during the meetings.

Before a recent meeting, the worker talked to this child about his wishes. The boy explained to the worker that he did not want to return home because he did not feel safe with his parents. He wanted his parents to know, but didn’t want to hurt their feelings. The social worker and relatives were sensitive to his situation and were able to help him feel safe during the meeting.

So that his voice could be heard, the child filled out a form that expressed his wishes. The child agreed the social worker would read this information out loud during the next meeting.

During the meeting this young man sat between his current caregivers, but close to his parents. After the social worker read the child’s words aloud, we asked if he had anything to add. The child then looked at his parents and said he did not want to return home because he did not feel safe because his parents would drink too much alcohol and get into fights.

At the next CFT meeting, a change took place in this young man. He was sitting next to his father. The grandfather was praising the father for continuing to remain sober.

The father looked at the boy and said, “I really didn’t drink that much, did I?”
The child looked him right in the eye and said, “Oh yes, you did.”

From that moment, the father’s demeanor changed. He now acknowledges that alcohol was a problem.

This young man went from being very quiet and not smiling much to being more talkative, smiling, and laughing during meetings. This change took place because he was able to tell others what he wanted for his life. This could not have happened if he did not have the support and encouragement of his caregivers and social worker. All the preparation that was put into encouraging this young man to be able to voice his wishes took a lot of time and commitment from many people.

In the long run it made him happier.

Facilitating a meeting is a big responsibility that can have an enormous impact on individuals. It takes the commitment of everyone in the meeting to develop a plan that best suits each family. Helping a family develop their own plan is more likely to work for that family than a plan someone else has created for them.

During the meeting it may look like the facilitator only plays a small role, but this can be deceiving. Being an organizer, guide, people watcher, mediator, and all the other things that go into facilitation takes a lot of time and effort, but it’s worth it.

Experience has shown me that a well-faciliated CFT can make a big difference to families and children.

Linda Waters is a CFT facilitator for McDowell County DSS.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~